ESP Project Leader Profile: John Butcher

Happy New Year, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP Project Leader Profile, you will read about the experiences of Dr. John Butcher at the University of Akron in designing the English program for young Saudi participants learning to be Elastomer Technicians in the future Saudi rubber conversion industry. John is currently on the ESPIS steering board as English for occupational purposes representative. He is also designing and piloting a Level 7 EAP program for Manatee Technical College in Bradenton, Florida. His profile below focuses on “Elastomer English”!


John S. Butcher, PhD


1. Define leadership in your own words.

Leadership relies on analysis of on-going needs of a particular context. Leaders must assess what is essential to any project by observing real-life interactions and inquiring about content and relationships that are important to stakeholders. A good leader always seeks guidance from experts and practitioners in the field, collaborates with them and with colleagues, and applies best practices in meeting the needs of a project. Prioritizing of information and timely task completion are especially important.

2. Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

The High Institute for Elastomer Industries (HIEI), Yanbu, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was established as an initiative for “Saudization” of the Kingdom’s workforce, to provide well-prepared elastomer technicians for the future rubber conversion industry proposed by several global industrial interests and the Saudi government. The University of Akron (UA) College of Polymer Science/Engineering was selected as the educational partner to train the Saudi technical instructor candidates who had been carefully selected for 2-year training at UA, the historic center for rubber technology research.

Although some English language support was provided the candidates at UA, little thought was given to the curricular design of meaningful “Elastomer English” for the actual training of young Saudi men who would be learning to be Elastomer Technicians.  There would be up to 80 Elastomer Technology Trainees (ETTs) enrolled at the start of each year, beginning in September 2012. The decided-on strategy was to teach general English to the trainees in hopes that they would get enough language to be successful in compounding and testing elastomer compounds, and, later, building actual tires in the workshop.

At the time, 2 years into the 5-year contract, the concept of English for occupational purposes (EOP) had not yet been considered. No relevant linguistic or cultural needs assessment had been conducted, and it became apparent that the entire program at HIEI hinged on developing the linguistic skills of the trainees. No “Elastomer English” had ever been investigated before, which includes the details of the chemistry, physics, and manufacturing language of the elastomer conversion industry. Problems encountered in the needs assessment were:

  • the denial of access to the jealously-guarded rubber manufacturing settings;
  • the highly technical habits of mind of the most of the scientists and manufacturing experts involved, which made untangling the language used and modifying it to be accessible to beginner EOP learners in KSA;
  • the insistence on using inappropriate instructional texts, some of which sometimes even violated the principles of Saudi-style Islamic culture; and
  • the contracted English instructional service provider that focused almost exclusively in the notion of general English.

The initial HIEI EOP curriculum for the first two semesters was written by the curriculum designer and vetted by several technical experts over the course of 2 months, prior to the welcoming of the first cohort of ETTs in September 2012. In the words of our outside consultant, “We are building the plane and flying it at the same time!” EOP, in the true sense, could not be an initial approach, but was rather combined with English for academic purposes (EAP) as limited by the institutional needs of HIEI only.

The program of instruction was for five semesters in the 2.5-year HIEI program. The first semester delivered more than 600 hours of English instruction, both general (as a compromise), and an adapted course aligned with the grammatical syllabus of the general English class, but using relevant content drawn from actual workshop and elastomer science content. The second semester offered more than 400 hours of English instruction, almost all was designed to be relevant to the elastomer conversion contexts of workshop compounding and testing language needs. Problems and resistance arose again from the English language instructors who felt they were not equipped to teach “science,” ignoring the fact that the curriculum was content-based and all resources were provided them to teach effectively. Furthermore, the English instructors worked along with the Saudi technical instructors and ex-pat elastomer experts.  The remaining three semesters reduced English language support to 40 hours per semester.

In conclusion, the first cohort of 58 ETTs graduated from HIEI in March 2015 with overwhelming success evidenced in the data of the their English and technical skill development. Lessons learned during the project include the following:

  1. EOP must be considered in the initial planning for such projects. Language experts must be consulted during the brainstorming period before any action towards designing a program begins.
  2. EOP must be provided relevant and appropriate resources and content for the context. They must also have ongoing interaction with the technical experts as they become more knowledgeable of the linguistic needs of the job.
  3. Employing “accidental tourist” types from among the thousands EFL “teachers” in the world is an enormous limitation to efficiency and timeliness of language support in a vocational program. People often take EFL jobs worldwide in order to meet personal interests in travel and “experience” local cultures. EOP professionals, on the other hand, must be committed to the tasks at hand, and must identify as colearners in the program because it is their role to learn the technical content, collaborate with knowledgeable experts, and devise language teaching strategies to meet everyday demands of the specific training context.
  4. The notion of general English is simply a myth. All language skills are for specific purposes in living and run a gamut of content, functions, and genres relevant to tasks at hand.
  5. Elastomer English is largely receptive in nature and function rather than expressive. Technicians must receive instructions and recipes, and understand and do the work without much talk. Writing involves lab report writing, data recording, and short email messages to clarify or report problems on the floor. A side note—the floor of a rubber plant is so noisy that it is very difficult to hear conversation, anyway!
  6. Needs assessment must continue throughout the program. Constant observations and revisions go hand-in-hand with quality assurance and best practices.

I very much like John’s last point above: “Needs assessment must continue throughout the program.” I am reminded of motivational speakers (such as Tony Robbins) who talk about “constant and never-ending improvement.” Further, you might want to take a look at Scollon and Scollon’s nexus analysis in view of Schön’s reflective practitioner. One exciting aspect of ESP is that as ESPers, we always need to be learning!

Please post any comments or questions for John below!

All the best,


Note: You can go here for all ESP project leader profiles and more!

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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One Response to ESP Project Leader Profile: John Butcher

  1. Margaret van Naerssen says:

    John, I agree with the point you made, that Kevin underscored, about needs assessment has to be an on-going process.
    Also, you made a good point about the possible limitations of having instructors who are ‘accidental tourists’ and may not have the time or commitment to become as involved in an EOP project like the one you did.

    The challenges and processes involved you mentioned raise relevant issues for most ESP project development, and especially important for highly technical contexts..

    But going back to the 2nd question of the Blog:
    As a leader in the project–How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful? I’m thinking of the point you made about “resistance” by instructors –how did you communicate with them regarding their concerns?

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